‘Cancer Didn’t Have Me’
Educator overcomes cancer to earn doctoral degree
KENNESAW, Ga. (Dec 13, 2018) — In the dedication she wrote for her doctoral dissertation, Jody Worth concluded with these words:
“I had cancer. Cancer didn’t have me.”
Worth was in the midst of writing that dissertation when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in February 2017. It was devastating news for Worth, who faithfully had annual mammograms done after her mother and grandmother both battled breast cancer. She opted for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and underwent five surgeries in seven months.
Worth successfully defended her dissertation on Oct. 24 of this year and, just a few days later, received even better news – the results of blood work and a bone scan showed that she is cancer-free. With her family in attendance Tuesday night, Worth received her doctorate in Teacher Leadership from Kennesaw State University.
“For me, it’s all about determination,” Worth, 44, said. “Like I wrote in the dedication of my dissertation, life has so many circumstances, but the circumstances don’t define who we are, and I refuse to let my circumstances control me.”
That positive outlook carried Worth through her cancer battle – especially when her family experienced another challenge. Just a few weeks after Worth’s cancer diagnosis, her husband Derrell, a game warden for the state of Georgia, was shot by a hunter who mistook him for game in a wooded area he was patrolling.
“It was a really crazy year,” Worth said. “I got the two phone calls I always had feared – the call telling me that I had cancer and my husband calling me to tell me he had been shot.”
Worth pressed on through her cancer treatments and her husband’s recovery, continuing to pursue her doctorate from Kennesaw State. She chose KSU specifically for the Teacher Leadership degree offered by the Bagwell College of Education and because of a teacher leadership cohort the University conducted with teachers in Greene County, where Worth lives and works. Along with courses offered online, Kennesaw State professors traveled to teach classes in her home county, about 100 miles from Kennesaw.
“What was really neat was that having the cohort with other teachers in my county really created camaraderie with the other teachers in the program,” Worth said.
Throughout her battle with cancer, Worth also felt a kinship with her extended family at Lake Oconee Academy, a public charter school in Greensboro, Ga. Worth started teaching there in 2008, the second year of the school’s existence, and for the past five years has been Lake Oconee Academy’s Upper School director.
Lake Oconee Academy raised money for Worth’s medical bills by selling bracelets commemorating her cancer fight and the fourth-graders creating a T-shirt with the slogan “#Worth for the Win.” Meanwhile, Worth said the teachers brought meals to her three times a week and she “constantly received emails from parents and other community members” showing their support.
“The school community really came together. They were amazing. I was so humbled,” Worth said, adding that she returned to work as soon as she could after each of her surgeries.
“My outlook always was to think of how I could serve someone else,” she said. “I feel my best when I’m at school working. In this position I have, you never think about yourself. You’re focused on students, parents, teachers and staff.”
But her greatest support came at home, from her husband and their two sons, Kyle, 15, and Caleb, 12. They all attended Worth’s dissertation defense and shared a double dose of good news when she was notified by her doctoral advisor, professor Kimberly Gray, that she had earned the title of “doctor.”
“I kid you not, at the moment that Dr. Gray walked out in front of my family and said, ‘Dr. Worth, would you like to come in?,’ my husband was on the phone with his captain being notified that he was selected as Officer of the Year (by the Georgia chapter of the Wild Turkey Federation),” Worth said. “That moment felt like closure.”
In a sense, though, Worth’s story is just beginning. She hopes that her experience can inspire others to overcome whatever challenges they are facing.
“I just think that in all we do, we should have meaning, and we should be intentional about it, no matter what it is,” Worth said. “I hope my story can encourage someone else.”
– Paul Floeckher
Photos by David Caselli